Essential tips for UKBC competitors

First Published - June 7, 2012 

Have you been bitten by the competitive bug – are you tempted to enter next year’s UKBC? Here are some invaluable tips to help you to get ready, from one of this year’s barista entrants, Chris Walton.

The one thing every competitor says about their experience at the UKBC is how much they learned and improved. And that’s the best reason for entering the UKBC. Not for winning or “glory”, but to improve your skills and knowledge. The competition provides a great environment for this. The motivation to do well, and the people you meet all add to the learning experience.

When to start preparing for the UKBC?

Admittedly it takes hard work and commitment to benefit so the first piece of advice is start early. Give yourself 3-4 months’ head start to begin planning. There are a lot of elements to work on for those fifteen minutes on stage.  Even small things like the table dressing will take up time, so the earlier you start, the more time you’ll have for the inevitable panic buying of spoons, saucers and glasses for water.

Which comes first – the coffee or the signature drink?

I started by picking the coffees I was going to use as a blend. From there you know the flavours in the espresso and cappuccino, and can start figuring out what you can do with it for the signature drink. You could also start the other way round, outline what you want to say with your signature drink, and work out which coffees can help you achieve that. Previous competitors have presented interesting ideas like using all parts of the coffee fruit, or showing how different water pH levels can alter the flavour of coffee. Whichever route you take, the earlier you start more time you’ll have to prepare, and you’ll save yourself a lot of stress the closer you get to competition time.

How can you make your signature drinks really original?

I decided to look into blending. It’s not something a lot of baristas have a chance to do, so I took this opportunity play around. I started by tasting a lot of the coffees we had at Union to see what tasted great. After that, I had to pick two or three that would work well together and start trialling them in different combinations. This meant dialling in and drinking a lot of espressos. Great practice for a shop environment, making sure you get the best out your blend, but a hard task if you want to sleep that week. It was a great exercise though, and I’d recommend it if you get the chance. I’m in a fairly unique and privileged position to have access to do this. Once I had the blend sorted, I could start working on ideas for a signature drink.

Last year there were comments that many of the signature drinks people were serving were too heavy, laden with cream and chocolate. I decided to try something light and refreshing, which the judges might appreciate and set me apart from the pack. However a lot of other people had this same idea. Great minds I guess… One of the criteria in judging for the signature drink is the creativity and synergy of the drink. Don’t mistake this for something crazy and original. It can be something simple, done well and that works perfectly with the coffee. If you over complicate it, there’s more that can go wrong on the day, and the benefit isn’t worth it.

Get your basics right

Another thing you should start early with is honing and perfecting your barista skills. You may think you prepare an espresso perfectly, but is your tamping absolutely level to the degree? Is every shot you prepare exactly the same every time? This is what is going to be evaluated by the technical judges, and they don’t miss a trick. They’re trained to have the eyes of a hawk and spot any and all deviations you make. So analyse every shot you make from when you decide to enter, to that last practice shot. The technical points are easy to pick up, so don’t throw them away! This is one of the areas where it’s easy to improve quickly, and it’s going to help you every day.

Those eagle eyed judges watching my every move

How important is your routine?

Once you’ve got these elements sorted, it’s time to start working on the routine. Fifteen minutes is not long to prepare and present three sets of drinks. You need to somehow say a lot with as few words as possible. I gave myself about ninety seconds to two minutes for the introduction. In that I gave a short talk about the farm, the flavour notes of the coffees and why I chose them, the flavours of the espresso, cappuccino and signature drink. That way the judges had all the information they needed for evaluation, and when I came to serve the drinks, I only had to give a few quick notes to remind and prompt them.

Preparation is everything

The more you practice this little presentation, the more confident you’ll be saying it aloud on the day. It sounds sad and a bit mental, but I used to practice my presentation out loud in the car. Probably did look a bit crazy if anyone was watching me, but it really helped me speak with confidence during those fifteen minutes.

As well as the presentation, I’d recommend practicing the full fifteen minutes. In the rules released before the competition, there’ll be a diagram of the equipment layout. If you get the chance, try and set up your practice area to match this. It’s something I didn’t do, and I got marked down for station management. It wasn’t a lot of points to lose, but they were such easy points to gain that it was a real waste to throw them away.

One last point I think can be important is the music you pick to play during your routine. It can be used to keep unofficial time, give you cues as to where you should be in your routine, and set a mood or tempo to your presentation too. Your music choice will influence the judges’ perception of you, the same as the way you dress. Importantly as well, it’s going to put you at ease, and make you more relaxed when you’re on stage.

There's no pressure, honest! Just people staring over your shoulder and judging you. Easy!

Final words of advice

I don’t really want to finish this with a cliché like “just have fun”, but this time it is true. You’ve entered the competition because you love coffee; don’t let stress and pressure ruin that. Keep smiling, and be proud of yourself!

Thanks to Chris, one of our brilliant barista trainers, for sharing his experiences at this year’s UKBC. You can read all about his heat here and follow @espressoChris on Twitter. 

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